A balanced portfolio — that’s what my financial advisor tells me I should maintain. Even in these turbulent economic times. He says some of my retirement should be in stocks, some in bonds, some still in real estate, some in venture capital, some in international investments, some liquid in a money market — spread carefully across a range of investments that will yield optimal earnings over time with a conservative level of risk. He says at my age this makes most sense. I believe him. I am wondering if the same wisdom applies to the church. I’m thinking here of our missions and benevolence budgets, not our operating budgets or endowment funds. I’m wondering what spreading our missions and outreach dollars across a broad range of local and foreign investments actually yields — both for the programs we support as well as for our congregation. I am frequently invited to participate in church mission conferences where ministries set up display booths in the fellowship hall to showcase their programs. Some ministries have simple tables with a poster and brochures, some are more elaborate with wide-screen CD players with compelling pictures and graphics. Each ministry has the same hope — that church members will sign up to become volunteers and donors, and that the church will include them in their annual mission budget.
Having been on both sides — both church elder approving budgets and program executive hoping for support — I understand the system. The church wants to see its members excited about ministry (both within and beyond the church), wants to raise more dollars for missions this year than last, wants to have the broadest possible impact in spreading the Good News of the Gospel. The “missionaries in the field,” on the other hand, are more single-minded in their mission, passionate about their specific cause. The missionaries, knowing the way churches allocate missions dollars, make the rounds to an ever-widening network of churches to secure modest financial commitments for their cause. It’s a balanced portfolio approach that seems to work for both the church and the supported ministries. On the surface, at least.
When I sit down with my financial advisor to review my retirement account, he shows me very specifically how my investments are doing. The numbers tell the story. Real estate is down, some minor adjustments need to be made, stay with the long view, the yield will improve with the economy. But how do we measure the yield on our mission investments? The size of the budget doesn’t tell us anything about impact. The number of church members volunteering in outreach programs measures activity but not outcomes. How far we spread our dollars does not equate to the effective spread of the Gospel.
Let me suggest another alternative, one that works in the community development arena. Focus. If you want to see substantial change in a troubled neighborhood, you must concentrate energies and resources over time. It’s a case that must be justified to foundations and other funding sources, since they understandably want to serve as many worthy causes as possible (as well as avoid the appearance of favoritism). The case must be made that disproportionate concentration of money, time and effort is required to achieve significant and lasting change. Spreading investments thinly will yield only surface results, and temporary ones at that.
That’s why FCS works in only one neighborhood at a time. Focus. A simultaneous advance on all facets of community life — safety, education, housing, youth, seniors, church, block-by-block organizing, business — produces immediate and measurable results. But the effort must be sustained over time if it is to produce deep and permanent change. And this is costly. However, as neighborhood health improves, as economic forces take hold, as the fabric of the community is strengthened, the need for outside resources will diminish. This may take a decade.
Back to church mission strategy. If a church were to examine its strengths — its culture — and identify the preponderance of professions of its members (educators? real estate? lawyers? accountants?), it might well discover the arena of service it is best capable of addressing. As well as its innate passions. A church full of business people might be uniquely equipped to create successful businesses in a developing country. A church full of educators could turn around an under-performing school in their community, yea, the entire system. You get the idea. By narrowing the focus of missions, by concentrating the collective efforts of the church on specific places and issues, we increase dramatically the chances of effecting significant, measurable, and lasting change.
I understand that our congregations are full of compassionate, creative people with all manner of worthy causes that are close to their hearts. I understand, too, the desire (the need) of a pastor to keep his or her flock pacified (if not engaged). Thus the rationale for a broad, balanced mission portfolio. But I also know that people respond to inspired and intelligent leadership. When the vision is right, people will expend herculean amounts of energy rising to a challenge worthy of them. When the leadership is committed to outcomes rather than activity, to measurable results rather than budget size or number of engaged members, I believe the case for focused mission can be made with tolerable disruption.
A balanced portfolio? Well, I guess it’s all in the outcomes you are looking for.